Seth Barron joins Brian Anderson to discuss New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s handling of the pandemic, Bill de Blasio’s time as mayor of New York City and the race to succeed him, and the condition of city politics today. Seth’s book, The Last Days of New York, is due out in May.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is your host Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is our friend, former editorial colleague, and frequent past host of this podcast, Seth Barron. Seth is now the managing editor of The American Mind. It's a great publication over at the Claremont Institute, I encourage you to check it out, and you can follow Seth on Twitter @SethBarronNYC. Seth also has an important new book coming out this spring, it's called The Last Days of New York, and we'll talk about it a bit later.

Listeners of the podcast will also be interested to know that the City Journal team is wrapping up production on a special issue that we'll be releasing shortly. It's called New York City Reborn, and it will gather together all of the essays on the future of the city, and ideas for getting us out of it's pandemic, or post pandemic situation, that we've been publishing online over the last six months. These will be updated versions of those pieces.

But we've asked Seth to come on today to talk about one of the big stories in New York and national politics going on right now, which is the controversy surrounding Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration's handling of the coronavirus outbreak in the state. It was reported last week that the governor's team admitted basically to hiding data on the number of victims in nursing homes in 2020 throughout the state. This was purportedly to escape public scrutiny and possible legal action by the Trump Justice Department last year. Since the story came out, there's been reports of the governor threatening state lawmakers, an investigation opened by the US Attorney's office, and more than I'm sure we'll get into with our guests today. So Seth, thanks very much for joining us.

Seth Barron: Oh, absolutely, Brian, thanks for having me on.

Brian Anderson: You wrote a piece for us last week when this story about the governor first broke, it was called "Cuomo Unmasked". Can you break down for our listeners, especially those who might not be in the New York area, what we learned and what was the governor's reaction this week that also made news.

Seth Barron: Sure thing, Brian. Just to back up a little bit, back in March of 2020, when the pandemic was really hitting America, and New York in particular, there was a big fear that the hospitals would be overrun and that people would be collapsing and dying in the hallways. And as a result of this, Cuomo and his health commissioner, Gary Zucker, put out a directive ordering nursing homes and long-term care facilities to admit or readmit COVID patients from hospitals, directly, whether or not they were still contagious. This turned out not to be the best solution because a lot of contagious people wound up entering nursing homes, filled with the most vulnerable older people, sick people, and as a result thousands of nursing home residents got COVID and died. Now this was fairly clear in April, and it was pretty clear that it wasn't necessarily the best decision, but Cuomo maintained the directive through late May.

Now there's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking and 2020 hindsight being applied here, some of which is fair, and some of which I think is unfair. In the same way that I personally think it's unfair to say that Donald Trump is responsible for a quarter million deaths to COVID, I think it's equally somewhat unfair to say that Cuomo is directly responsible for the 14 or 15,000 deaths that occurred in New York State nursing homes. At the time he made the decision, it was incomplete information, and this is the decision he made.

The problem that's emerged is that throughout the summer of 2020, as you may recall, Cuomo would be on television every day, giving his briefings about the course of the pandemic, and then he would be on television all night long, on his brother's show on CNN, and he just received all of this national adulation from the media who presented him as the real president of the United States, or the shadow president, and he was just talked about in these salvific terms. He was given an Emmy in the fall, and it was just over the top. And the problem is, he kind of ate it up. He wrote a book about his crisis leadership during this period, and he was very reactive and angry if anyone questioned his judgment.

Now it's emerged that they knew that the numbers were much higher than what they were releasing, they stonewalled the media and the state legislature on the true numbers of people who are dying. And when it finally came out, he claims he was just following the federal government. I mean, this is another case where the coverup is worse than the crime, in a sense. A couple of weeks ago, or last week, his top aid, Melissa DeRosa, told democratic legislators that the reason that they didn't release the information sooner, as you said, Brian, was because she didn't want the Trump administration, or Cuomo didn't want the Trump administration to weaponize the data, to politicize it and go after them and send the Department of Justice into poking around. So that's essentially obstruction and lying and hiding evidence of a possible crime.

So Cuomo is now in a corner, and as usual when he's cornered, he lashes out. So he told a state legislator from Queens that he would destroy him if he didn't back him up, and he's acting like a serious bully. So the bloom is off the rose, let's put it that way.

Brian Anderson: I wonder, Seth, do you expect that there will be real consequences for Governor Cuomo? He has been a major force in New York politics for some time now. In terms of state politics, how do you think normal people and voters in New York are going to perceive this story, or are perceiving it right now?

Seth Barron: That's an interesting question. In the past, when Cuomo has been cornered or gotten into trouble, he's just sort of bluffed his way through it. A couple of years ago he set up a commission called the Moreland Commission into Public Corruption, which was supposed to investigate cases of graft or dodgy campaign contributions. And then when the commission started looking into some of his own donors, Cuomo just shut it down. And he said very clearly, "This is my commission, I can do whatever I want with it. I started it, I can end it." This is the way he's tended to govern.

Now things have changed a little bit in this state. Not only has the state Senate switched from Republican to Democrat control, but the entire legislature now has a veto proof democratic majority. Traditionally the Senate was Republican and the Assembly was Democrat, and the governor was able to essentially get together with the leaders of the two chambers, and the three of them would hammer out a budget that would also contain a lot of legislative, new laws would be just inserted into the budget, and he could play off the two sides.

Now that the Democrats have a veto proof majority, they're still dependent on him, because he presents the budget, but they can push back. So I think we're going to be seeing more of that, although the speaker of the assembly, Carl Heastie, has not so far opposed the governor, but there are talks right now, many legislators want to roll back Cuomo's executive emergency powers right now because of the pandemic, there's all sorts of things he can just do unilaterally that they want to take away from him. And then he has an election next year, and there may be people on the left side of the party who want to challenge him. So it's a very good question, and it's a little bit in flux right now.

Brian Anderson: As you know well, Seth, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, someone whose career you follow closely, is wrapping up his final year in office. And basically everyone in the City is now looking forward to the next mayor. You wrote a piece for us a few weeks ago now, which will be included in our special issue, New York City Reborn, previewing the mayoral race and profiling some of the top contenders. Mostly in that essay, though, you urge caution. I'll quote you here, "It's tempting to think that electing a better leader will repair all the damage. Unfortunately, it's not that simple." If you could, could you sum up your concerns for New York as you expressed them in that essay? What kind of damage has the de Blasio administration done to the city over the last eight years? What is the post pandemic outlook for the city? Have you seen anything that might make you optimistic for New York's future, at least in the near term?

Seth Barron: Sure. I mean, one of the benefits of having a two party system, as we do in most parts of America, and nationally, is that the two parties, they reign each other in to some degree. You can't run to the far left in a two party system because, well, you're going to have to face a general election against a more moderate opponent, and the same on the other side. New York City, and increasingly New York State, is a one party state. So there's really no check on the leftward impulses of the democratic party, particularly in the primary. Right now we have dozens and dozens of seats coming open in the election this year, the June primary, and then the November general, and all of these candidates for city council, for mayor, for controller, are just leapfrogging each other to the left to try to promote the most woke left-wing agenda.

So all kinds of things are coming up that years ago never would have been considered feasible, such as legalizing prostitution, or insisting that all new construction contain one quarter of the units for the very poor, abolishing the police. And we're seeing these kinds of proposals virtually from all of the top candidates for mayor, for instance. So I don't see de Blasio as having been some kind of strong leader who imposed a new regime on New York, he was a function of the progressive ascendancy that rose in 2009, and then in 2013 with his election to the mayoralty. So he's just part of this, and it's like a juggernaut, it's got a lot of power and a lot of momentum. Whether there's anyone who can slow it or stop it, I think is a really good question.

I mean, the only positive side I see, and I'm not a big fan of Andrew Yang by any means, I think a lot of his policies are insipid, but he's not beholden to the existing power structure, such as the municipal unions, and the, I guess, what you'd call the nonprofit industrial complex in New York City. So he might be able to come at things with an original perspective, and he is leading in the polls right now. I mean, today de Blasio is meeting with union leaders essentially to stop Yang. He's in a panic, and the entire democratic machine is in a panic, both the mainstream ones, and the insurgent left wing ones, about Yang. So that's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. Anything that shakes up the sclerotic political culture we have here is positive.

Brian Anderson: As I mentioned at the top, Seth, you've got a new book coming out this spring, The Last Days of New York: A Reporter's True Tale of How a City Died. Now, this overlaps somewhat with some of the things you were just saying, but I wonder if you could give a sketch of the main argument of the book for our listeners.

Seth Barron: Sure, sure, I'd love to. Yeah, I mean, basically I did sketch out my premise, that a regime has taken over New York City from top to bottom, from staffers, to the elected officials, to these consultants who work on behalf of politicians, unions, corporations. They essentially fund, they raise money for candidates, they essentially select candidates. It's very hard to see lines between the political party, the consultants, and the donors. We've seen a very woke progressive agenda, an equity focused agenda, meaning equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity. We saw this with de Blasio when he took over with his Tale of Two Cities narrative, stressing the wealth disparities among people in New York City. I mean, the thing about New York City is, it's always been a beacon for immigrants because there was so much opportunity here.

People don't come to New York, either from the rest of the country or the world, seeking equality, they come because they're seeking opportunity. Seeking equity, equality of outcome, just smothers opportunity, it destroys it. But it's invasive, it's gotten to every aspect of government and cultural life. The schools are now completely infected by this insidious ideology, with principals sending out charts to white parents, asking them to identify where they are. Are they white supremacists or are they white traitors? This type of thing. So we're seeing this in policing, education, budgeting, we're seeing it all across the spectrum of policies and politics. So it's not looking too good, it's just really not looking too good. But anyway, that's the thesis, that's what I do in my book, is I cover all these different areas, but also it's not a strict policy book because I do get into the personality of Bill de Blasio and some of the more amusing features of his term.

Brian Anderson: Don't forget to check out Seth Barron's recent work. He's now the managing editor over at The American Mind, we're still glad to have him writing for City Journal, and he'll be writing for us going forward on New York and other issues. You should absolutely check out this new book he's got coming out, The Last Days of New York, it'll be appearing in May. And you can follow Seth on Twitter @SethBarronNYC. You can also follow City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal, and on Instagram @cityjournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please leave us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening, and thanks very much, Seth, for joining us today.

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

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